Domination Sickness

Those three seem overpowered at the moment – and it will only get worse…

Yesterday, Barcelona played one of these games. One of these games which are the signs of times to come in football if it’s current direction continues. Following a fairly mundane first half in which the visitors put up a formidable fight, the Catalans have completely wrecked their opposition, adding six goals to their La Liga tally and reducing the former Luis Enrique’s team to tears. There were no brakes on the attacking train when Suarez kept feasting on Messi’s passes to surge past Ronaldo in a Pichichi race. The demolition was complete. It got to the point when Messi, the uncontested King of the Game these days, gifted his fellow Uruguayan an easy tap-in through an extravagant execution of a penalty. Everyone who was supposed to get his share of goals and assists has got them; every person in the crowd got the thrill they paid for. And it was all so disgustingly, so horribly boring.

The trend will probably continue. As it stands, Blaugrana have managed to drop only 12 points of out 69 they could’ve won in their domestic league. Their 62-goal tally is bigger than the one accumulated by Malaga (#11), Betis (#14) and Espanyol (#17) combined. Hell – Luis Suarez alone has scored more La Liga goals this season than any of these teams. And those numbers aren’t anything new: two years ago, during the pinnacle of his goalscoring spree, Leo Messi was at one point outscoring more than a half of Primera Division teams – all by himself. Along with the stats, there come the artistic values of footballing craft: pitch-perfect crosses, deadly through balls, long diagonal passes few people in the world would even think of, let alone execute them properly. If this keeps up, Barcelona will break 100 league goals this season – but even now, at 62, they’re still eight short compared to Real Madrid!

The only word that comes to mind is: domination. Nothing else can be said about a team that hires a new, relatively young and inexperienced manager who then jumps in to win 80 out of his 100 first games. In a week, he and his lads will go to Emirates Stadium in London and take no prisoners against one of the best English teams out there, as strong and in-form it may be. This level of supremacy is not normal and has only happened a handful of times in the history of the game – maybe when Real Madrid were cruising in the late 50’s; maybe when Bayern Munich had their time in the 70’s. Luis Enrique’s players are now on course to win two back-to-back Champions League titles – something that has never happened since the tournament has been rebranded in 1992. Well, actually – they might even win two back-to-back trebles. To put it in the perspective: so far, only Egyptian Al-Ahli and New Zealand Auckland City were ever able to accomplish that feat – in far, far less competitive leagues.

As I said before: this state of affairs is so painfully boring, it actually hurts to watch it as it unfolds. Gone are the times when Barcelona (with Rivaldo and Kluivert upfront) would go to Beşiktaş and get trashed 0-3. There are no more sensational stories like Valencia’s two-time Champions League cruise at the end of 20th century; no more Dynamo Kievs, Ajaxes, Olympique Lyons or Romas upsetting the tournament brackets. The most small clubs can do is parking the bus and frustrating bigger rivals in a second-rate competition, the Europa League – just the way Dnipro did last year. If someone, somehow, breaks this pattern – like FC Porto did in 2004 – they are immediately being overpowered by the sheer weight of finances and prestige – assets that prompt their players’ departures for bigger and better clubs.

Barcelona AD 2016 is only one example of the final product arising from this new reality. In France, Paris Saint-Germain are 24 points ahead of the competition – meaning that, mathematically speaking, they could secure the domestic title with ten games to spare. Their goal difference is 51 – better than all other Ligue 1’s positive goal differences combined. Attacking trident of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Edinson Cavani and Ángel Di María has been responsible for 41 goals so far – which is at least two more than any other team in French top flight has netted this season. The biggest hiccup on Parc des Princes during the 2015/16 haul was Serge Aurier’s recent scandal, in which he insulted Laurent Blanc as well as couple of his teammates. But that’s hardly a problem: even if the Ivorian right-back loses his job, there will always will be Gregory van der Wiel ready to jump in and fill the void. Full comfort.

Bundesliga does not provide much of relief from the domination scenario either. This term, Borussia Dortmund have been playing some of the best, most spectacular, brave and creative football in it’s entire history. In Thomas Tuchel’s hands, Shinji Kagawa has become the excellent #10 once again while both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have found the form of their lives. In the meantime, BvB have managed to develop the new supertalents of Matthias Ginter and Julian Weigl. And then, what all these good news resulted with? Twelve-point deficit to Bayern Munich – yet another team so gigantic, so terrifyingly powerful, it turns the entire title race into a joke. Shedding as few as 7 points in their league cruise (21 games now) so far, Guardiola’s machine is yet another team that contributes to the imbalance between clubs that are ‘big’ and clubs that are ‘monstrous’.

The weekend was supposed to answer whether Serie A will go down the exact same path. After scoring record-breaking 14 league victories in a row, reigning champions Juventus were taking on Napoli in a potential title-deciding six-pointer. Well, that was at least close: for a long time, neither side could break the deadlock and a total number of just five shots on target through the game told the story of a match without a clear favorite. However, in the end, it’s still the giant from Turin that prevailed. Simone Zaza’s winning strike wasn’t very clean or very spectacular – it actually had to take a deflection to go past surprised Pepe Reina. Lucky and competitive as they were, the circumstances cannot change the facts: The Old Lady is back at the top, having collected six clean sheets in a row and not conceding for 476 minutes. There will be a fight, sure – but, at the moment, another giant is back on it’s throne.

When did this all happen? The traces of things yet to come go back to the year 1995, when totally anonymous Belgian footballer, Jean-Marc Bosman went to European Court of Justice and has won himself the right to be the subject of the first free transfer. From that point on, players in Europe – and their agents – gained an important leverage against their employers. In short: either the clubs were going to pay them more, or they were off to the richer footballing companies once their contract expired. Which resulted with thousands of lads making millions of kicking the ball already in their twenties – but also, caused the majority of the most promising, the most gifted young players to gather more and more under the wings of giants from Barcelona, Madrid, Munich, Paris, Turin…

Of course that wasn’t the whole story. From the year 2000 onward, the top European clubs have started initially modest but progressively more energetic expansion towards the Asian markets. Their first attempts were strange, to say the least. I still remember the days when Galacticos team – with Figo, Raul, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos – was absolutely swarmed by hysterical Chinese supporters during their 2003 Asian tour. There were plenty of incidents surrounding the pre-season trips to Asia – ranging from brutal interventions of the police to the most recent racist sex orgy by Leicester City youngsters. On the other hand: the continent with 4.4 billion inhabitants has been unlocked for the game that used be totally obsolete compared to cricket, badminton or table tennis. 2002 World Cup held in South Korea and Japan also contributed to that process.

I don’t speak Chinese, but I’m sure the t-shirts are saying: “we want your money”.

What were the consequences? Well, for one, with so many entry-level kibitzers jumping in, the strongest, richest most successful and lucrative football brands got a head start in the race for selling TV rights and merchandise. How many basic consumers of the kick-and-rush entertainment with no personal ties to European team would be willing to cheer for, say, Schalke, Valencia or Lazio when there are bigger fishes with better chance of winning the silverware? Exactly – and that’s the reason why Manchester United, at the dawn of Alex Ferguson’s era, have cashed in their success by expanding to Asia. Fast-forward to 2016, the team that goes through a sporting crisis under Louis van Gaal, prides itself to have roughly 659 million of supporters all across the world – out of which, 498 million live away from the Europe and two Americas. So, here it is: another factor working in favour of the richest.

One more milestone has been reached in 2003. Chelsea taken over by Roman Abramovich – that was the moment when the world of European football has clashed with the world of Forbes-level billionaires for the first time. The sudden injection of cash into the market has changed the landscape forever. Unlike in-debt Florentino Pérez or permanently suspicious Italian businessmen, the transfer and wage money in Chelsea were very real and gave the team a strategical advantage that materialized in five Premier League titles. The others were quick to catch up: in 2008, crazy amounts of money came to Manchester City; in 2011, brand new PSG entered the scene. In 2012, the failed attempts were made to build yet another continental superpower in Malaga. Alas, eventually, the big business realized that it’s only the giant, globally recognized clubs that matter in terms of making big enough profits.

So here we are now, watching ludicrously rich football superbrands smashing the local-based businesses week after week. Is it really entertaining? Not at all. Is it really marketable? Yes, but only to a degree. After all, it’s an entertainment business. When it comes to having fun from watching professional sports, people want more than just unbeatable sides packed with legendary players. Football, above all, is a fight of wills and strategies in which money should not buy the ultimate success. People following it may want the stardom-packed teams – but they also expect surprising results, remarkable stories, close contests, spectacles decided by the last kick, the last header, the last goalkeepers’ save. And yet, at the moment, the game is rapidly drifting away from the state where anyone could beat anyone.

Except for the Premier League. This time last year, Chelsea were leading the BPL with 60 points; today, the sensational leaders from Leicester have only 53 – and a modest, two-point lead over the rest of the pack. It’s the Premier League that features the most nail-biting clashes; it’s the Premier League that provides the most unexpected outcomes. It’s also Premier League that allows more room for physical confrontation and fouls than the other European top leagues: hence only 41 red cards this season, as compared to 90 shown in Ligue 1, 84 shown in Serie A and 72 shown in La Liga. It’s the Premier League that provides blood, sweat, tears and great stories. And if they’re having the best TV deal in the history of the sport as well as the biggest social media coverage and hype surrounding them – it’s not just because of the universal language they’re using.

No. Forget the monopoly of the richest – it’s all about the thrill of a close, fair rivalry.

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